As a parent volunteer within the school system, I saw first hand phonics vs. whole language learning.
Phonics wins every time. My kids always loved to do what mommy was doing, so I taught them a few simple rules of phonics, just like I was taught as a child myself. Most of the kids my children went to school with were taught using the whole word method repetition and memorization.
As a direct witness to the “effectiveness” of the whole word method, I can attest to the fact that the only kids being taught phonics at home by their parents could read more than a few words. These were not the only parents trying to help their kids learn reading skills. In fact, reading skills were something which most of the parents in our area took very seriously. Yet by the end of the second grade, all of the kids who were being taught only the whole word method had, without exception, fallen significantly behind the kids who were also being taught phonics at home. These were kids who not only worked hard at school to learn new words but practiced at home daily, yet they fell further and further behind.
The kids being taught phonics read better than their peers, yet spent significantly less time studying. A few simple rules and the phonics kids were ready to go, while the rest struggled trying to memorize and pronounce lists of words that grew ever longer as they got older.
By the end of the 4th grade, fully one third of the kids in my children’s school needed remedial reading help of some kind. By the end of the 6th grade, there were a number of kids who were functionally illiterate, all because of the whole word method. If a child had not memorized the entire word they were lost. They did not have the ability to sound it out properly and would struggle over the same words again and again. They became hopeless spellers as they had not one single tool to work out how to spell a word. They either knew it or they did not and there was no system or logic that would help them work it out for themselves.
My children came into the school system at the same time the whole word method reached the height of popularity. Now they are in high school. Most of their friends have reading problems of one kind or another. Their friends can’t spell, can’t handle new words or information and are hopelessly illiterate. You have no idea how grateful I am that I was old fashioned enough to teach my kids the things that their school would not.